Flight tests of the nation’s missile defense system will not resume until this fall at the earliest as the military revamps the program after two failures in the past seven months, a military official says.
The military may conduct two tests by year’s end, with the earliest possibly this fall, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no schedule has been announced.
It is uncertain whether the military will have a target missile ready for launch, however, and the first test may not involve an attempt to hit a target.
The delay further hampers Pentagon efforts to validate a multibillion-dollar program that supporters say will help protect the nation from ballistic missiles such as those being deployed by North Korea and other nuclear-armed rogue states.
Even though the military occasionally activates interceptor bases in Alaska and California, they are not on around-the-clock alert as envisioned. The system has not had a successful intercept of a target since October 2002. Three tests have ended in failure. The Bush administration had said the system would be working by the end of 2004.
An independent review, performed this year for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, suggested that the rush to deploy the defenses led to inadequate quality control during the tests.
The report was posted online by the Center for Defense Information, a liberal defense policy think tank in Washington.
Missile Defense Agency spokesman Rick Lehner said the report raised some issues regarding quality control that, “quite frankly, we didn’t pay enough attention to, and now we are.”
President Bush is seeking $9 billion for the program in the upcoming budget year, $1 billion less than previously planned.
In the two most recent tests, each costing $85 million, the interceptors from Kwajalein Island in the Pacific Ocean failed to get out of their silos to intercept a target launched from Kodiak Island, Alaska.
On Dec. 15, the test missile did not launch because of a problem with communications software. The second test, on Feb. 14, failed because an arm that holds up the interceptor did not fully retract in the moments before it launched, officials said.
The Missile Defense Agency is putting together a schedule for future tests, Mr. Lehner said. The goal is to make the tests more rigorous for the interceptor missiles and less likely to fail from test equipment woes.
Whatever becomes of the testing, the Pentagon will forge ahead this summer with installing 10 new interceptor missiles at its base in Fort Greely, Alaska, officials said. Greely has six interceptors in place.